Cloud computing in the Clouds

"Cloud computing" can certainly be counted as a buzzword since 2010. It turns up everywhere just as "low carbon" did two years ago. People seem to live in a world wrapped up in "clouds" as cloud-related concepts prevail, like medical cloud, environment cloud, audio cloud, video cloud and Ali cloud. Like it or not, we probably have to usher in an era of cloud computing.

The Notion of Cloud Computing

A business leader might appear outdated if he fails to mention the term "cloud" in industrial planning. But few know for sure what on earth the "days on cloud" will look like and what opportunity and transformation it would bring to traditional firms.

An indisputable fact is that, as one of the "top ten key technologies attracting the most attention in 2011" , cloud computing is becoming a leading IT trend gradually finding its way to people's work and life.

“Cloud Computing” in the Clouds

There is, however, no universal definition of cloud computing so far. Baidu interprets it as a kind of Internet application mode first proposed by Google. In the narrow sense, it refers to a delivery and exploitation mode of IT infrastructure, or obtaining resources via the Internet according to one's needs and in an easily extendable way. In the broad sense, it means a mode of service delivery and exploitation, or obtaining services via the Internet according to one's needs and in an easily extendable way. Such services, including those related with IT, software and the Internet, or any other services, which are extremely large, virtual and safe. Search engines, Google map and online mailboxes are among the most popular examples of cloud computing.

Deeper understanding tells us that cloud computing is a technological mixture of traditional computer and the Internet. It aims at connecting a large number of relatively low-cost computing entities through the Internet into a perfect system. It does so by distributing its powerful capability among end users through advanced business modes including SaaS, PaaS, IaaS and MSP. One of its central concepts is to keep reducing the processing burden placed on terminals by continuously boosting the processing ability of the "cloud" and finally turn terminals into simple input/ output instruments which enjoy the cloud's capability according to their needs.

Ni Guangnan, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, gave an in-depth analysis at the recent China Cloud Computing Application Forum. He said that cloud computing is an inevitability of industrial development, which turns computing into a socialized service. In a sense, software is the cheapest and most regular application of cloud computing. In addition, it has many advantages which are of great help to new business modes of the society. These advantages include high performance, wide compatibility, dynamic sharing of resources and business innovation. Its ultimate value is to turn computing into a socialized service which integrates scattered computing resources so as to boost IT facility application, reduce cost and cover more users.

The explanation is clear enough for professionals, but not for the general public. "In China, cloud computing remains a mysterious notion and its applications are still at the ground level," said Yao Yuepeng, CIO of Red Dragonfly Group, "Most applications today are limited to LANs and no one knows exactly whether it can play a global role."

At the recent 2011 China IT Leaders Summit in Shenzhen, participants expressed their views on cloud computing. Innovation Works CEO Kaifu Lee said that as the entire IT industry is changing from being "hard" to "soft" , cloud computing presents more business opportunities. Alibaba President Jack Ma believes that high-end applications of cloud computing should be achieved by cutting cost through sharing, and it is not important that no profit modes are available for the moment. Baidu CEO Robin Lee was more straightforward by saying that most so-called "cloud computing" applications today are merely disguised existing ser vices. What is important is a serious, patient study on the technology to reduce customers' cost.

Cloud computing has been reportedly lauded by supporters as a "revolutionary computing model" for it enables free flow of super computing capability through the Internet. Firms and individuals, instead of spending on expensive hardware, can buy computing on the Internet. "You're your computer as an entrance and leave the rest to the Internet."

Some foreign media analysis, however, pointed out that the so-called cloud computing is nothing more than a commercial stunt to fool consumers and even investors.

Professional Interpretations

The long dispute didn't dampen professional enthusiasm on the topic. During the NPC and CPPCC sessions in March this year, several NPC deputies and CPPCC members mentioned the term.

The global computing pattern changed dramatically in the past decade, going gradually from being scattered to cloud computing, and this brings huge opportunities for new chip and semi-conductor industries, said Deng Zhonghan, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and chairman and CEO of Vimicro Group. He hopes China can seize this opportunity for technological transformation.

Sun Pishu, chairman and CEO of Inspur Group, believes that cloud computing is the core competitiveness of the future information industry and the possession of the technology with our own intellectual property rights will become a vital indicator in national industrial and information security. Now it is high time for China to develop cloud computing. Firstly, because universally accepted standards on structure and service have not yet been defined, which leaves room for China in the formulation of standards and protocols. Secondly, domestic f i rms should keep pace with their foreign counterparts on the understanding of the technology and even go faster in some fields. The operation system of Inspur, for example, can be regarded a Chinese version of Windows in the coming era of cloud computing.

Lenovo Group CEO Yang Yuanqing called cloud computing "a new term, but an old topic" . As company networks and the Internet grow, he said, more and more applications are provided through cloud computing and in return it will give rise to new trades, industries, applications and services. Facing the opportunities, Lenovo is poised to provide colorful and tailored terminals for cloud applications, including traditional computers and various kinds of mobile network terminals and household digital terminals. Lenovo also attempts to offer applications and services by using customer groups. In Lenovo's vision, computer terminals in every home and firm would be repaired and maintained distantly.

Application and Strategy

Globally, cloud computing is reaching the application stage in 2011. Governments worldwide are paying great attention to it and take measures to push forward relevant research and application. Major IT firms across the globe are revising their strategies. Major dot.coms have open platforms to provide services to cultivate their new strengths for competition and a complete industrial chain model has taken shape. Related applications have been launched in various trades that have realized its advantage and value. Meanwhile, more and more customers have begun to accept the mode and increasingly more data and applications are being moved to the "cloud" .

Cloud computing will be the key to the future transformation of IT industry, said Lu Qi, president of Microsoft Online Service Group. Besides, cutting corporate costs, it will "explosively" boost the pace of growth, sensitivity and innovation capability of firms. Microsoft as a whole is transforming itself by moving all its software products to the "cloud" , including operation system, data bank, management and business expansion. He also revealed that Microsoft has more than 30,000 product development engineers that are directly involved in cloud-related work and the firm's related businesses are growing very fast.

Meanwhile, international giants, while spelling out their technological strategies, have started a new round of ground fights. Typical examples of patents include Google's cloud data cooling, Microsoft's cloud data moving and IBM's "blue cloud" program. In July 2008, Yahoo, Intel and HP jointly announced their plan to set up a research alliance to promote the technology. In November 2009, Cisco, EMC and VMware announced their alliance on virtual computing environment. They launched VBlock infrastructure kit and established an independent company Acadia to provide the data center with private cloud infrastructure plan for end-to-end businesses.

According to the Report on Chinese Patents on Cloud Computing recently finished by Shanghai Intellectual Property Service Center, world renowned IT companies including IBM, Microsoft and Intel are all laying out their patent strategies in China. Most patent application from overseas fall under the category of G06F9 (program control device) and G06F17 (number or data processing for certain purposes), indicating their domination in the central spheres of cloud computing.

At home, both governments and firms have displayed soaring enthusiasm. Regarding cloud computing as an important part of the next-generation information technology, governments at all levels have been actively promoting its research, demonstration and application. In October 2010, the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology jointly issued a statement, asking for further efforts in innovative top-layer design and scientific strategies, and deciding on implementing trial demonstration of cloud computing services in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Wuxi. Leading institutes and firms have reportedly made a series of important progresses in central technology research, application solutions and service modes.

"Cloudy" Great Leap Forward

However, a trend of unchecked construction of computing centers is looming large. Media reports said that in the past few months scores of "cloud projects" have materialized across the country. Some have been finished and the others are under preparation, and a large part of them are government-funded projects.

Lei Wanyun, information chief of the China National Pharmaceutical Group, told China Economy & Information magazine that some local governments approach cloud computing as something like building houses. Some of them spent a great deal on servers and data centers. But with neither market demand nor related professionals, they will have to purchase new technologies in a few years. This reflects a typical misunderstanding of cloud computing.

Lei believes that governments need to take four steps: firstly, make a good plan and foster a friendly environment at home; secondly, create a sensible pattern through advanced management; thirdly, formulate standards and regulations; lastly, run trial projects. Many local governments, however, jumped directly to the last step, unaware of its highly probability of failure.

Yang Xueshan, vice minister of industry and information technology, also expressed his worry, "For cloud computing, the first step is to develop applications instead of hardware. And in many places the notion is far from being thoroughly understood."

As a matter of fact, for most Chinese firms, especially small and medium-sized ones, cloud computing is presently only a topic rather than actual applications. The platform constructed last October by Beijing Municipal Computing Center, the first of its kind serving industrial computing, is undergoing trial operation and will soon be put into formal business. However, after six months no more than 50 research institutes and companies have joined as users since most other potential user's worry about security.

Some industrial crises have showed up. For example, in 2011 Commercial Service Providers (CSPs) will invest heavily on the purchase of infrastructure and hardware/software platforms and marketing their cloud computing services. Then a large number of suppliers will follow. But due to immature technology and services and single-dimension competition, some will run into difficulty by the end of next year as a result of tight funding and prices which are too transparent.

Problems in Developing "Cloud Computing"

IT giants including Google, IBM and Microsoft have been promoting cloud computing with unexpected endeavors. Today, on top of corporate market, individual users can also have access to cloud platform services. This includes Android and Apple shops where cell phone software can be downloaded.

However, more people still hold a cautious "wait and see" attitude out of security considerations. Many corporate users have research and design computers disconnected to the Internet to protect their vital secrets. But when using cloud computing, they would have to connect their computers to the Internet and place some confidential data on cloud servers.

The worry is by no means groundless, even for individual users. On March 1 this year, Google admitted that part of its Gmail users lost all letters and chat log on the morning of February 27. A more recent case was the massive leak of cell phone users' private information caused by an Android-based virus HongTouTou. The most open cloud computing platform is feared to bring uncontrolled negative impacts. In Google, Microsoft and other firms' efforts to lure corporate customers, continuous dysfunctions in storage would no doubt deal a blow to customer confidence.

Security, the biggest bottleneck of cloud computing, will slow down its growth if not properly handled. NEC (China) vice-president Kubota Ryo said that as cloud service suppliers they would reinforce the system comprehensively by not only laying down specific security products in the cloud but building up multi-layered protection including key management, access management and certification monitoring. For large and medium-sized Chinese firms, they must first understand that not all business can be put on the cloud, and then distinguish businesses suitable for cloud from those not. When launching services, suppliers should help customers to decide what kind of business are fit for the cloud.

Will security concerns hold back the "cloud" ? Lei said that many organizations, including governments, don't have a systematic understanding of cloud computing and hence harbor a fear of it. It is just a business like banks that need the governance of laws and regulations. Governments and third-party institutions also should play a part to lend it credit.

Intellectual property is another barrier. Lawyers have warned about a patent war and customer risk of being involved in patent lawsuits.

The prosperity of the Internet in China today is a result of heavy expenses in the past, so we must draw lessons and start by creating a complete and healthy industrial chain, said Lei.

Cloud computing, a new concept in Internet technology, has lifted its veil after a few years of academic discussion, application and media hype. What direction will this emerging industry lead? Will the "cloud" stay and blossom into a new wonder of the world, or pitifully scatter and vanish into nothingness upon a sudden gush of wind?

(Translated by Li Heng)

Source: China IP

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